Monday, October 6, 2014

Group Work Drama

Based on Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development I would argue that adolescents understand each other much better that we understand them, or than they understand us (perhaps that is why there is so much friction between teens and adults).  Thus, I try to use group work as a means for allowing my students to translate my adult-ese (academic chem speak) into something that they might be able to make meaning of.  However, I quickly learned that creating groups could be like walking through a minefield.  With so many differing personalities combined with the interweaving of personal lives and school cliques (most of which I am oblivious to) student groups can quickly deteriorate into a mess of angry teens.

“One should not assume a collaborative relational stance with a partner incapable or unwilling to participate at a similar level” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 90).

One particular instance of that occurred in a group last year that consisted of three girls, Mary, Brittany and Julie.  Both Julie and Brittany were strongly opinionated and at the time inflexible girls and poor Mary was doing her best to keep the piece.  The argument was based upon a disagreement between Julie and Brittany which stemmed from a perceived inequality in work sharing.  Neither of the girls was willing to negotiate with the other and ultimately preferred to do the project on their own.  

“Enhancing students’ self-sufficiency and autonomy without also supporting their capacity to negotiate resources, power, and relational meaning with others can limit student growth” (Nakkula & Toshalis, pg. 95).

Mr. Harrison had a similar issue to deal with between Lorena and Steve.  However, Mr. Harrison was able to deal with Lorena and Steve much more efficiently that I was able to deal with Julie and Brittany.  His approach to solving the conflict is outlined by Nakkula and Toshalis on pages 91 and 92 of their book Understanding Youth Adolescent Development for Educators.  Mr. Harrison had his students answer the following three questions:
  1. “What do you think are the key elements that make this project important?”
  2. “On which of those elements would you find it difficult to compromise?”
  3. “Which elements are negotiable to you?”

It has occurred to me that most teachers can identify at least a few reasons why group work is beneficial to learning (develop interpersonal skills, team working skills, etc.).  I wonder if students could do the same.  Further, I wonder (though not much) whether or not students have developed the skills or confidence to truly resolve conflicts as they come up within their group.  In light of these and what I have learned from reading this book (Understanding Youth), it occurs to me that the three previously quoted questions might be a good place to start any major project - before conflict arises.  


  1. Hola Gabe,

    I am a huge proponent of group work too, especially since I want all of my students to be speaking Spanish, and speaking it often. I have groupings of 4-6 kids in my classes, and naturally, some groups are more cohesive than others. When I conducted my interview with my student, Julia, two weeks ago, I found out that she didn't like her group because she thought they were too "talkative." I mix up the students every month, but I feel bad that these things probably happen more often than I think; that is, a kid not feeling comfortable with his or her group. I want to come up with a better way, but I have no idea of how to because, won't there always be a kid that NOBODY wants to work with? That's why these forced collaborations leave me with mixed feelings, but until I come up with a better solution, I am going to keep doing what I'm doing because I'd rather have them collaborating with classmates rather than being isolated and not speaking. I'd love suggestions from anyone in #TheCohort as to how they group students!

  2. I' m also a huge proponent of group work. I think that teaching kids how to work together to solve a problem is what they will be doing in real life. This year it is essential for the students to work in groups. One thing that I learned from my research last year was that kids need to be taught how to work in groups, there needs to be structure, and it is a good idea for kids to learn to monitor their progress while the work is still in progress and not just after they are finished.

  3. Gabe, I do a lot of group work in my class and for the most part, I allow the students to pick their own groups. There are times, however, that I assign the groups that the students are going to work in because I want to push them a bit out of their comfort zone. Tip that equilibrium just a little bit. I have found that the discomfort of working with people that you might necessarily not want to can make students take on a different role in the group than they usually do. They might not be "happy" but the reality is that they will have jobs some day where they may not always like everyone they are working doesn't change the fact that they will have to learn to work with the people that are there. I am not saying to shake things up all the time, but I am saying that changing it up, can tip into the disequilibrium, and that's not always a bad thing-even if its uncomfortable. I also have found that having the members of the group have specific jobs helps to alleviate the feelings that some are doing more than others. Having the group members also 'grade' the other members of their group can be an interesting activity that keeps group members accountable.